In the summer of 1971 in a DC comic book entitled House Of Secrets (issue #92 to be exact) a writer named Len Wein and an artist named Berni Wrightson introduced the world to the Swamp Thing. The story of a well intentioned scientist named Alec Holland (originally named Alex Olsen in this short story) really took off when DC gave the character his own series and let Wrightson and Wein go to town. Though it only lasted twenty-four issues (Wrightson left after the first ten went to press) the character would be revived in May of 1982 to coincide with the release of the Wes Craven theatrical film, this time lasting for considerably longer. This second series, The Saga Of The Swamp Thing, thanks to stories from the likes of Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Grant Morrison, Nancy A. Collins and Mark Millar did a lot to really grow the character by introducing a few interesting and at times almost surrealist themes into the mythos of the character in question. The series, particularly when it was under Moore's guidance, would go on to win a few awards and become not only a fan favorite but a critical darling of contemporary sequential horror fiction as well.
The theatrical film went on to spawn a sequel, an animated series, a toy line and a live action television series, which brings us to the boxed set being reviewed here, Swamp Thing: The Series. Included in this set and spread over four DVDs are the first twenty-two episodes of the USA Network show (it ran seventy-two episodes in total), making up the first two seasons of the show.
Dick Durock, who played the titular swamp monster in the two films, reprises his role once more for the series that once again follows Alec Holland, a scientist who finds himself the victim of an accident one night while toiling away at his work in his Louisiana bayou home. When some sinister types try to steal his regeneration formula, his house lights up like a Christmas tree and he finds himself jumping into the water of the swamp that lies just near his doorstep. Months later, a massive, hulking creature emerges from the brown-black water to avenge those who have been wronged and to ensure that Alec Holland's 'death' was not in vein.
The live action series takes a page out of Moore's book and sees the Swamp Thing slowly transform from a vengeful monster to an elemental judge of sorts. He starts off as a creature intent on beating down evil doers, more of a traditional superhero, but not long after he starts to mature in the sense that his actions and the actions of those around him have a very real effect on humanity and the environment... one which he's definitely going to have to think on a little bit. The focus of these earlier episodes is on Swamp Thing dealing with his new life as a creature rather than a human scientist and one fighting (and of course thwarting) local crime. Eventually, a Dr. Antone Arcane (first seen in the comic book) is brought in to serve as a sinister rival, with his daughter, Abigail Arcane, serving as the love interest. The Swamp Thing also finds a kindred spirit in a young boy named Jim who has recently moved to the area to live with his mother and grandmother and make a new start.
The show turns out to be a strange mix of The Twilight Zone and The Incredible Hulk as the focus of the series is on horror/sci-fi material but the protagonist is an unwilling monster. It isn't all the faithful to some of the more complex and more revered comic book stories that inspired it but it does bounce some of the themes around to varying effect and when that didn't work out so well, the producers weren't afraid to throw in a monster or two for Swampy to battle.
The complete list of episodes that make up this four disc release are presented in chronological order as follows:
The Emerald Heart
From Beyond The Grave
Spirit Of The Swamp
Legend Of The Swamp Maiden
The Death Of Dr. Arcane
The Living Image
The Dark Side Of The Mirror
Walk A Mile In My Shoots
Touch Of Death
Tremors Of The Heart
The Prometheus Parabola
The series proved to be hit or miss though more often than not Swamp Thing was always at least a fun watch, even if it's difficult for those familiar with some of the headier stories seen in the comic version not to compare the series to that source material. Durock does a good job of bringing an unusual sense of sadness to the character that works well in the series' favor and the sets, shot on the Universal lot in Florida, certainly feel humid and grimy enough to be authentic. Pacing is generally strong and while there are moments where you wish the writers had gone for something a little darker or a little more mysterious, generally we're left with an enjoyable sci-fi/horror hybrid featuring a memorable lead character and some interesting supporting players.
This collection doesn't present the entire series, ending things on a rather suspenseful note. Here's hoping Shout! Factory does well enough with this release that we see Swamp Thing's plight brought to its televised conclusion.
The series is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio and quite frankly, the transfers on this set are not all that impressive. Things tend to be a little dark and a little murky during the nighttimes scenes and the fact that the material hasn't been properly flagged for progressive scan playback means that those with higher end setups could potentially notice some very heavy saw tooth/combing effects. Contrast is a little harsh as well, resulting in some rather pinkish skin tones in some scenes. Colors are a little flat and not as bright as they should have been. Black levels look good and there are no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor are there any print damage problems but there's no denying the murkiness of the image.
Audio is provided in English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with no other alternate language dubs, subtitles or closed captions provided. Quality of the audio is fine and there a no problems with hiss or distortion even if some stronger channel separation would have been welcome for some of the action scenes in the show. The score and sound effects sound good and the score sounds solid enough without overshadowing the performers or their dialogue.
Aside from menus and episode selection (each disc also has a 'play all' option), the only supplemental material on this set is a two part featurette entitled the Men Behind The Much that contains interviews with Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein (8:06) and series star Dick Durock (10:58). Wein talks about how he developed the character with artist Berni Wrightson, and he talks about his early influences and where some of his ideas came from. Durock discusses what it was like to play the character on the big screen and on the television show and shares some memories about his time on set.
Those expecting the genius of some of the comic books that inspired the show will walk away disappointed but in terms of entertainment, Swamp Thing: The Series delivers. It's not always as smart or as unique as it could be given what the show is based on but it is at least always fun in a monster-mash sort of way. The transfers aren't anything to write home about but the audio is fine and for a fringe series, any the scant extras included here are at least appreciated. Those who already know they like the series should snap it up, the curious would be best served with a rental before plunking down any cash on the set.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.